Monday, 23 November 2015

The Mysterious Death of the Heir to the Throne

In 1054 the King of England, Edward the Confessor, had been on the throne for 12 years and had been married for 9 years, but still had no heir. This was a major problem and he was put under pressure by his nobles to start thinking about appointing one, as he was now in his mid-forties. This succession dilemma and the events that followed led to the invasions of England in 1066 culminating in the Battle of Hastings.

Edward’s early life had been in exile in the court of Normandy and it was this fondness for the Norman’s and his understanding of their way of life that meant he invited Norman’s into his court in England and also took some of them on as advisers. This did not go down well with some of the Anglo-Saxon nobility especially the Godwinsons.

In 1051 England came very close to civil war! In the late summer in Dover a group of Norman’s, led by Count Eustace of Boulogne (Edward’s brother-in-law), was attacked by the townspeople of Dover in a bloody mass brawl.  The Norman side of the story was that they had demanded lodgings in Dover for the night and were refused with one householder being killed. The townspeople rebelled against the Normans and a mass brawl ensued with casualties on both sides. When the Normans reported these events back to King Edward, he did not wait to hear the other side of the story, but ordered that the townspeople of Dover be punished. As Dover was part of Earl Godwinson’s earldom, he was ordered by King Edward to carry out the punishment. Earl Godwinson refused for a number of reasons; he did not believe the story of Count Eustace; the townspeople were defending their right to admit who they chose and he was fed up with King Edward siding with the Norman’s all the time. Therefore a few weeks later, Earl Godwinson had amassed an army and met the Kings army at Beverstone, 15 miles south of Gloucester. After realising that the rest of the Earldom’s in England sided with the King and therefore was outnumbered, Earl Godwinson backed down and submitted to the King. After consultation with his councillors, the entire Godwin family, including the future King Harold, were given five days to leave England and were banished. King Edward’s wife, Edith, also a Godwinson, was removed from Court and sent to a nunnery in Wherwell, near Winchester!

Later in 1051, Duke William of Normandy visited King Edward in England and it was during this visit that he was supposedly chosen as Edward’s heir.  However, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle only noted his visit and not the purpose of the visit. Although Edward may have wanted William as his heir, it was the ruling council, the Witan, which chose the next King, so the crown was not Edward’s to give.

The Godwinsons did not stay in exile for long. In 1052, they gained support and made their way to London in a fleet of ships taking hostages and ransoms where they could. Finally again they had a showdown in London where King Edward this time submitted. All the titles and lands were restored to the Godwinsons and the Queen Edith was returned to Court. Earl Godwinson’s joy at regaining his title and properties for his family were short lived. During the rebellion he had begun to feel unwell and whilst at Edward’s court in early 1053 he died after a short illness. Harold became Earl of Wessex and over the next few years would become King Edward’s right hand man and was seen as king in all but name.

So within all this internal turmoil and Court bickering, in 1054 King Edward discovers that a male relative of his is alive and well and living in the Hungarian Court. His nephew, also called Edward, who was supposed to have been killed off by King Canute, is the son of English King Edmund Ironside(king for seven months before being killed by King Canute). Therefore, he had a rightful claim to the English throne. On hearing this news, King Edward despatched Bishop Aldred of Worcester to request that his nephew come to the English Court and become his heir.

This lost relative was not good news for the two protagonists of the Battle of Hastings. Duke William firmly believed that King Edward had promised him the crown in 1051. Earl Harold was also making a name for himself as the most prominent Anglo-Saxon and would have thought himself fit to wear the crown when King Edward died. However, fate played its hand once more to the detriment of the Anglo-Saxons, as the exile Edward died within two days of arriving back in England in 1057. King Edward never even got to meet his long lost nephew and no-one knows why. So mysterious was this death that the chroniclers of the time made little mention of it.

The Anglo-Saxon chronicle says of Edward the Exile’s death:  ‘We do not know for what reason it was brought about that he was not allowed to visit his kinsman King Edward. Alas, that was a miserable fate and grievous to all this people that he so speedily ended his life after he came to England, to the misfortune of this poor realm.’

The two people with the most to gain from this mysterious death were Duke William and Earl Harold. The fact that it occurred on English soil and although he had been in exile for over forty years, Edward the Exile would have been accepted by the Anglo-Saxon nobility, the finger would point towards Harold. However, Duke William claimed he had been told by King Edward that he was heir to the throne and he had a network of spies all over Europe makes him a suspect too.
All in all, King Edward was still left without an heir when he died on 5th January 1066. Earl Harold became King Harold II and the catastrophic slide towards the Battle of Hastings had begun. 

Monday, 12 March 2012

Duke William's Fury

The kill was near, static prey in sight

The Duke could not withhold delight

White hart now locked firm in his view

Unaware of missile speeding through

The silent copse of Beech and mast

To it’s target now closing fast

Until the thunder of snorting destrier

Alerts the prey of danger near

Immediately darts to safety’s keep

Hidden from harm in thicket deep

Messenger dismounts in fear and alarm

Presents the Duke news from afar

With reddening face and veins ice blue

William screams, “This can’t be true!”

Edward is dead, Harold now King

Promises made don’t mean anything

Vengeance burning in his smouldering eyes

William’s fury fixed on his new prize

Capture the Crown from Harold’s hands

With God’s help he’ll make a stand

The hunt now over, invasion is planned

Men, horses and ships William will demand

Invasion is ready September 1066

A colossal armada of six hundred ships

Wait for the wind to blow in their favour

Crossing the Channel not many will savour

Nature relents as if signalling green light

The Normans are coming to take up the fight

Saxon navy is waiting to give them a blow

Norman fleet is harried their progress is slow

At last they arrive safely, camp on England’s shore

Anglo-Saxons in danger like never before

No welcoming army to send them back forth

Harold’s fighting the Vikings way up in the North

Normans build their defences and search the terrain

Plunder and pillage the name of their game

Harold defeats the Norsemen, so marches back south

His intention to give William a smack in the mouth

Tired Saxons meet invaders and get ready for battle

England’s Crown to be decided in a field fit for cattle

Both armies are fighting for honour and glory

The Battle of Hastings now that’s quite a story

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

That fateful morn on Caldbec Hill

Birds were silent the air was still

On that fateful morn on Caldbec Hill

The morning dew lay in its bed

A lake of tears that would be shed

For Saxon souls that would depart

England’s mortal heart ripped apart

By Normans, Flems and Bretons too

Come to taste the blood of whom

Stand in their way for England’s Crown

A man of wealth and world renown

King Harold’s army stands firm and tall

Impressive ranks form their shield wall

Duke William’s attack can start at will

On that fateful morn on Caldbec Hill

On this frosty morn in 1066

Sword and shield were firmly fixed

Leather jerkins strapped and secure

Shield wall ready, strong and sure

Flags of war ripple and flutter

Words of prayer were heard a mutter

Nervous breaths were clear to see

Hardened stares faced their enemy

Autumnal leaves leap and prance

In preparation of impending advance

A rain of arrows marked the start

From Norman ranks they did depart

The Battle commenced its cries were shrill

On that fateful morn on Caldbec Hill

The first advance was soon repelled

The shieldwall shaken but it had held

To jeers and shouts of Saxon delight

At Flemish soldiers who’d turned in flight

A cavalry charge was dealt the same

The Saxons winning the early game

Duke William is dead the Norman’s fear

But back on his horse the invaders cheer

As William leads the next assault

Stopping the Normans from early revolt

Hour after hour the shield wall was battered

But it held that was all that mattered

As King Harold’s crown was shining still

On that fateful day on Caldbec Hill

The Battle continued throughout the day

Reinforcements were coming the Saxons pray

Their shield wall was thinning it could not last

England’s Crown nearly in Norman grasp

As dusk approached the shield wall scatters

Saxon defence is now in tatters

A final stand to save their King

Ends in despair, the Normans win

There were thousands that died on that autumn day

Young men, boys and farmers not there to play

Battlefield new in colour, blood red now its hue

Senlac is it’s new name forgotten by few

Every October they pay homage, remember them still

Of that fateful day up on Caldbec Hill

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Battle of Hastings 2011

The battle re-enactment for 2011 held at Battle Abbey on the 15th October was performed under glorious blue skies and watched by an estimated five thousand spectators.
The main event took place at 3pm so what to do before then? Wander around the authentically decorated medieval market stalls and buy that so sharp seax, or the viking drinking horn? Sample a taste of authentic mead or simply buy an ice-cream? There was a plethora of activities for young and old; a falconry display, learning to paint your own shield or taking aim with a bow to fire a few arrows at a static wild boar!
The English Heritage exhibition was also available to view and portrays an excellent history of 1066 and life under the Normans.
So to the main event, five hundred Normans faced up-to five hundred Anglo-Saxons both hurling verbal abuse at each other and cheered on by the massed spectators. Over the next hour the story of the famous battle that had taken place on this field 945 years ago was played out before us. There were no holds barred by the re-enactors when it came to the inevitable vis-a-vis confrontation. There is no love lost between the re-enactors and this was shown by the physical effort literally thrown at each other at close quarters. There were broken noses and black eyes on show during and after the battle. Even a faller from a horse was quickly seen to but did not effect the battle being played before us.
After an hours physical re-enactment the end of the battle brought the days activities to an end to rapturous applause. A fantastic day of history was played before a recipient audience and left us all with a hunger for next year's event.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Who was to blame for the fall of the Anglo-Saxon empire?

When William Duke of Normandy was crowned King of England on Christmas Day 1066, the Anglo-Saxon dynasty came to an end. Defeat at the Battle of Hastings on 14th October 1066 effectively ended the military struggle against the Normans and once William’s coronation took place on Christmas Day 1066, the political struggle also ended. Although there were a number of rebellions in the following years, the Anglo-Saxon’s had been conquered.

So where did it all go wrong?

In 1042 when Edward the Confessor became King of England he had only recently returned from living in Normandy. He was a very pious man and liked nothing more than to hunt with falcons and attend church services. However, he became a weak king and relied heavily on his Norman advisors. This infuriated the Anglo-Saxon Earls who after a considerable campaign persuaded Edward to send the Norman advisors back to Normandy. The Earls were also concerned about the succession to the Throne and encouraged Edward to take a wife. He eventually married the sister of Harold Godwinson (later King Harold), but the marriage was a sham. Edward took a vow of chastity and would therefore not provide an heir. This proved to be the most contentious issue of his reign.

Edward the Confessor
There were many claimants to the Throne: William Duke of Normandy was a cousin of Edward and claimed that he had been promised the throne if Edward did not produce an heir; the Viking King Harald Hardrada also claimed he had a right to the throne; Edgar the Aethling at fifteen years old, the grandson of Edmund Ironside, a previous King of England, also had a claim to the throne; and then there was the most powerful man in England, the Earl of Wessex, Harold Godwinson. The Witan council eventually appointed him King on Edward’s death. This appointment was to trigger a catalogue of events, which culminated in the Battle of Hastings.

Before the Saxons and Normans met on Senlac Ridge, King Harold had been advised to wait for reinforcements from the North before challenging Duke William in battle. The Saxon army marched for nine days after their successful victory over the Viking army of Harold Hardrada at Stamford Bridge near York and was tired but triumphant. However, Harold was outraged at the rampaging and pillaging of the Norman army in his own Earldom on the English south coast and wanted rid of the Normans from English soil. He left word in London for the Northern forces to join him without delay, but we now know they were never to arrive. This impatience was Harold’s first fatal mistake. The next took place during the Battle of Hastings. Harold had positioned his army at the top of Senlac Ridge and formed a defensive shield wall. This tactic was effective for a considerable amount of time. Harold believed that the Norman’s would eventually tire of attacking up a steep hill and when the reinforcements arrived, drive the Normans back into the sea. In the middle of the battle, Harold had an opportunity to force home his advantage and win the day. On a number of occasions, the Norman left flank retreated and allowed the shield wall to move forward. However, Harold kept the wall static and lost his opportunity. If Harold had advanced the shield wall as one and forced the Norman’s back down the hill, whilst the left flank was in retreat and disarray, the outcome of the battle may have been different.
King Harold

On September 24th 1066, the Anglo-Saxons achieved their last battle victory at Stamford Bridge. The Viking invaders led by Harold Hardrada had a few days earlier defeated the Northern Saxon army at Gate Fulford near York. The Northern Saxon army was lead by the Earls of Mercia and Northumbria, Morkere and Edwin.

Although these Earls were brothers-in-law to Harold, they both harboured a desire for independent kingdoms. After King Harold had led the Saxon army North to defeat the Viking invaders at Stamford Bridge, they heard news of the Norman invasion by Duke William in the South. Without delay, Harold lead the majority of the Saxon army South in the belief that he would recruit on his journey and that Morkere and Edwin would recruit in the North and then join Harold to defeat the Normans. However, the Northern Earls had other ideas. Although they marched South at a much slower pace than Harold had required, they were too late to join battle at Hastings. After the Battle of Hastings, Edwin and Morkere pledged their allegiance to the only remaining Saxon heir to the throne, Edgar the Aethling. However, instead of using their forces to encounter Duke William, they yet again betrayed their Anglo-Saxon Kingdom in the hope that they would bargain for an independent state. The Northern army marched back home and waited for the Normans to come to them. In 1070, the Normans came in force and wreaked havoc that would leave famine and desolation in that part of the country that would last for over a decade. The ‘Harrowing of the North’ was a sorry tale and instigated by the Northern Earls betrayal of King Harold.

In summary, the Anglo-Saxon empire fell for a number of reasons; King Edward had no desire for an heir and preferred Falcons to children; King Harold was too impatient and lost the Battle of Hastings; and the Northern Earls were too selfish to fight for the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom and were only concerned about a Northern state.
If there were one choice to be made for the main protagonist for the fall of the Anglo-Saxon empire I would have to choose an ineffectual King that put his personal pleasure before his kingly duties. King Edward, guilty as charged!

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Opening to 1066: Rebellion!

It had been a busy and mentally exhausting evening for Brother Ulric. In his humble parish church laid the dead and dying soldiers from the Battle of Hastings. The significance of the Battle had not been discussed with his fellow Monks, as they were tending to the spiritual and physical needs of their compatriots. The consequences of the Saxon defeat would come later. Now he had to tend to the dying and administer their last rites before they passed from this earth.
More than fifty bodies had been transferred from Senlac Ridge by cart or horse. There were a few walking wounded, but most of the casualties lay on the cold stone floor hours if not minutes from their appointment with St Peter. The church was constructed from the local oak and ash trees and was situated five miles from Caldbec in a village called Oakfield. Local villagers were helping with nursing duties, but the monks directed the activity.
As the Infirmarer, Ulric was directing operations with a cool and calm efficiency. At thirty years old, he had seen the injuries from sword fights and knew how to treat them and also knew how to comfort those past healing. His elder brother, Magnus had often got into drunken brawls and had received many a cut from a knife or a dagger. As the eldest son, Magnus had been destined to serve their Earl as a Housecarl, and Ulric the priesthood as the younger brother. That was the card life had dealt him and he had made good use of this opportunity. The Abbot had quickly seen Ulric’s eye for organisation and had made him the Infirmarer a mere five years after joining the Abbey. His knowledge of herbs, a soothing voice and calmness under pressure was in dire need this evening.
Ulric held the hand of a dying farmer firmly and yet gently to let the dying man know he was not alone. As one of the fyrd, the farmer was not a trained soldier, but had been called up to help his Earl fight the Norman invasion. The farmer’s voice was but a whisper, so Ulric knelt closer to hear his last confession. Ulric caught a few words about being sorry for being a bad husband and then the farmer convulsed for the last time showering Ulric’s face with spittle, blood and bile. Then he was still. The pained expression that had been etched on his face since the Norman sword had slit across his stomach was now replaced with a placid calm that removed ten years from his age. Ulric gently closed the farmer’s eyelids, muttered a prayer, rose and moved to seek out his next patient.
In the darkest corner of the church behind the altar lay an injured Housecarl. He was lying on his back with his head resting on a rolled up woollen cassock. His hands were clutched across his stomach as if he held back his entrails. His right eye was bruised and swollen covering most of his vision and a roughly cut cloth tourniquet had been applied to his right leg just above his knee. A candle flickered his shadow onto the wooden church wall and it was the movement of this shadow that had caught Ulric’s eye. The Housecarl had raised his arm to gain attention and by sheer luck or fate, Ulric had seen it through the corner of his eye. Ulric knelt down by his patient and mopped his brow with the cloth that had been placed by a freshly drawn bowl of water.
The Housecarl began to speak in a controlled but stuttering fashion. Each word painfully transmitted through clenched teeth, “The King… dead!” he began.
“I know my child. May God have mercy on his soul,” Ulric responded making the sign of the cross with his thumb on his forehead.
“No,” the Housecarl rasped in reply, “I saw.. him”
“Saw him when?” Ulric whispered.
“Changed armour….not dead!”
“Changed with whom? During the battle?”
“Near the end… escaped”
“Rest my child. Do not exert yourself.”
The Housecarl lurched forward and roughly grabbed Ulric’s collar. In severe pain and in his final moments he whispered in Ulric’s ear, “Harold….lives” and slumped back to his resting place.
“Who are you my child?” Ulric enquired.
The Housecarl never responded to Ulric’s question. Ulric’s heart was now beating fast. His mind swam with the information he had just been told.
As Ulric closed the warrior’s eyes for the last time a Brother had seen the last few minutes of Ulric’s conversation and had approached his colleague.
“An interesting confession Brother Ulric?” Brother Raymond enquired.
Ulric jumped at this sudden interrogation, as he had not heard Raymond approach. Ulric rose slowly and turned to face his Brother. His mind now fully engaged in the present, “Who was he Brother?” Ulric responded ignoring the question.
“Godfrey of Waltham. A Housecarl that had served with King Harold for many a year,” Raymond replied confidently, “He was one of the last to see the King before he fell.”
“I’m not so sure,” Ulric replied walking past his colleague, “I’m not so sure”.
Ulric headed straight for the church door and out into the night. It was raining lightly and the slight drizzle ran down his face and refreshed his furrowed brow. The last five minutes had turned a night of sorrow into one of hope and encouragement. What if Godfrey was right and Harold had managed to switch clothing? The Saxon King could fight another day. All was not lost!
Ulric stood yards from the church door looking to the heavens; his arms outstretched welcoming the pouring rain, as it now cascaded in a heavier descent. A smile etched right across his face. Brother Raymond watched Ulric from the church door and shook his head in bewilderment. Raymond had known of the Housecarl, Godfrey for a number of years. How could Ulric question his identification? With the dying Saxon soldiers still in need of his attention, Raymond turned about and walked back into the dryness of the church leaving Ulric in the rain.
Ulric was now on his knees in a puddle that had formed in the sodden earth where he knelt. This did not seem to bother the monk. He again looked up into the night sky, outstretched his arms and began to laugh uncontrollably. The soldiers from the Saxon army lay in his church, the battle was lost, but yet he laughed. Tears of joy mixed with the autumn rain ran down his face.
“He lives,” cried Ulric into the night sky, “he lives!!”

Battle of Hastings Tactical Analysis

When King Harold of England faced Duke William of Normandy on the 14th October 1066, they both used different tactics to try and win the Battle of Hastings.
Harold had positioned his 7000 strong Anglo-Saxon army on the high ground at the top of a ridge. His army fought on foot and formed a defensive shield wall many men deep to counter the charge of the Norman cavalry.
Duke William's 7000 men of Normans, Bretons and Flemish were formed in three sections of infantry and there was also a contingent of Norman cavalry. They faced the Anglo-Saxons up the hill that had a steep gradient.
The positioning of the Anglo-Saxon troops at the top of the hill gave them a distinct advantage. Not only did it give them a bird’s eye view of the battlefield, but also a physical advantage as the onus was on the Norman army to meet the shield wall and break through it after an arduous uphill climb. Even the Norman cavalry had to fight uphill!
At the beginning of the battle at approximately 9am, the tactics of Harold and William were simple. Harold’s shield wall had to stand firm and not break, whereas William had to breakthrough the wall.
The initial Norman assault of infantry failed miserably and so did the first cavalry charge. It was during this first cavalry charge led by William at the head of his Mathilda squadron that a rumour spread that William had been unseated and killed. His horse had been killed, but William survived with a few bruises and made it back amongst his men. After mounting his second horse of the day, William had to raise his visor to show his face to his men and prove he was alive.

The steep hill of Senlac Ridge
William’s first piece of luck occurred in the next phase of the battle. The Anglo-Saxon shield wall was holding firm and the Norman left flank was taking such a beating that the Flemish infantry fell and back and began to run down the hill. Approximately 1000 Anglo-Saxons saw that they were winning and ran down the hill to chase the fleeing Flemish. William quickly saw an opportunity and sent his cavalry to encircle the marauding Anglo-Saxons and trapped them between the Norman lines and the cavalry. This breakout from the wall left it severely weakened and encouraged William to mount another assault.
The second major assault also met fierce resistance and ended with severe losses to the Norman troops. It was at this point at about 1pm that modern military strategists believe that Harold should have forced home his advantage and moved the shield wall down the hill about 50 yards. This action would have been totally demoralising to the Normans’ as they were no nearer breaking through the shield wall. To see it advancing toward them may have broken their resolve. It is now believed that Harold chose to remain static as he was receiving small numbers of reinforcements during the battle. He firmly believed that the Northern army promised by Earl Morkere and Earl Edwin would arrive during the battle. A few more thousand men would have changed the outcome of the battle, but as we now know, it never arrived.
However, William was not to know this, so his initial objective remained the same; he had to breakthrough the shield wall before any Anglo-Saxon reinforcements arrived or the battle would be lost and with it the English crown. He employed a two-pronged attack that would win him the day. William’s archers were running out of arrows, but he insisted on one last salvo to be timed at a precise moment. William instructed his archers to aim at the shield wall just as his infantry would meet it simultaneously. The Anglo-Saxons could raise their shield to defend a falling arrow, but not keep it against their body to defend a thrusting sword at the same time. This tactic was executed perfectly and the shield wall began to falter.
The next phase of the Norman attack involved the cavalry crashing through the weakest point of the shield wall therefore causing panic amongst the Anglo-Saxons. It was during this phase in the fighting that Harold was probably killed and the battle won.
Although William did receive a certain amount of good fortune during the battle, it could be argued that he employed the more creative tactics. William was mounted on a horse during the battle and had a good view of the battle as it took place, whereas Harold’s view was restricted to looking over and around the soldiers in front of him.
Battle Abbey as it stands today